On September 11, 2001, I walked to work. It was a cool, crisp Iowa morning. As I often did, I took a path through Hickory Hill Park, a local nature conservancy area, and I ended up lost causing me to be late. When I arrived at work, there were already people asking each other, "Did you hear?" or "Can you believe it?" The first plane had already struck Tower 1 of the World Trade Center and, as I sat in my cubicle looking for updates on CNN and any other news site that had a different perspective of the developing story, I was dumbstruck.
There was no way of knowing who had done it or what was really happening, but I felt a fear I had never known. As I looked around and talked to others, I realized how connected we were all in that feeling of shock and abject ignorance. We hoped it had been a bizarre accident, but when the second plane hit Tower 2, there was no doubt and a deeper fear arose--this was planned and all of us might be in danger. When the third plane struck the Pentagon, the surreal nature of what was happening began to sink in. Could our country really be under attack? Why?
In the following days, long after the fourth plane crashed in the fields of Pennsylvania, after the first-responders and others walked like ghosts from the ash of midtown Manhattan and later rescue workers began digging through the wreckage searching for survivors, people were talking. "Did you know anyone who was there?" Neighbors were reaching out, complete strangers talked to each other--what would happen next?--an eminent war that would be supported because of the callous nature of the acts.
We were a united people in that brief moment, united in our grief, our anger, and our belief that we had been wronged. President Bush, who I and many others thought was the wrong choice of a leader when he was elected by the narrowest of margins, became vastly presidential in announcing that we would not let it stand. The very night of the attacks he said, "Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts," "Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve," and "The search is underway for those who are behind these evil acts...we will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them." And we believed that was the right thing to do: To find those who had done this and exact justice.
Fast forward to March of 2003, long after we had forged ahead on breaking up Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, we were told that we needed to go into Iraq because they too were a danger to us. Then we began secretive forays into Iran, Pakistan, Syria and other places that the US government was sure were harboring those who were against us.
Meanwhile, back home, the USA Patriot Act was passed and many people were being summarily rounded up, Muslims or people who looked like they might be, were under attack just because they resembled the people who had attacked us. Our privacy was being invaded to allow law enforcement officials to have access to information that might incriminate us. People were being held without charges. Guantanamo opened and renditions occurred.
Today, ten years after the fact, trillions of dollars have been spent, thousands of lives have been sacrificed, Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are dead, and we are still at war; and would appear, a war without real resolution. Our way of life has changed, but mostly because how we have reacted after the fact.
9/11 has taught me many things. Freedom is not free because it is easily taken away--and often freely given away. The safety that we wanted so badly after 9/11 opened the door for horrible policies to gain legitimacy--waterboarding, FISA--the surveillance act, the non-compliance to the Geneva Convention protocols, among them.
Like most, I grieve the lives of those innocent lives that were lost on that fall day and all those lives since then swallowed up in war, but mostly I grieve the loss of our way--we had a brief defining moment that brought us together as a people and look where we are now?--distrustful of each other as much as we are of our government. Instead of doing what in our national interest, we are witnessing a rolling up of the sidewalk by corporations who could make jobs, by consumers who are afraid of the consequences of buying homes or donating to charities or paying our fair share of taxes to make sure everyone can get through this.
9/11 also showed me that we are better than this. We are a nation of people who will do herculean things when the cause is just. The pictures of those who were first on the scene and the way they gamely tried to save others, in some cases giving up their own lives, will be forever etched in my mind, It's really hard to know if 9/11 will be remembered as the Pearl Harbor of our time, as President Bush was noted as recording in his journal the night it happened or if it will be remembered as the time when America forever lost its way. The next generation has to decide if we will be a united nation or if we will fracture.
9/11 also showed me that if events like those that led to "Arab Spring" can happen, that freedom and peace are also attainable. If we truly wish to live in a world that resembles our remembrances of pre-9/11, we need to acknowledge that our security was predicated on others being persecuted. 9/11 showed us that our being free is only as good as all people being free.